"Beautiful Walls for Baltimore" tells the stories of early murals, and their makers, in Baltimore
By By Bret McCabe
Jan 13, 2016 at 3:00 AM
"Can I geek out for a second?" Maggie Villegas asks, grabbing a pile of old photographs. It's the last Sunday in November and she's in a basement workroom at the School 33 Art Center surrounded by piles of papers, slide sheets, stacks of photographs, posters, and various ephemera documenting 40 years of public murals in Baltimore. As the public art project specialist for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, she's in charge of the Baltimore Mural Program. Since starting in March 2014, she's been digging through her office archives and reaching out to participating artists and previous administrators to get a sense of the program's history and discovered that today's mural program grew out of one started in the 1970s called Beautiful Walls for Baltimore. After flipping through a few stacks of photos, she pulls out the reference image for one of the more beloved murals from that era: James Voshell and Pontella Mason's 'The Checker Players,' which was painted on a building near the intersection of Edmondson Avenue and Franklin Street that has since been destroyed.
The mural showed two African-American men, seated facing each other, playing checkers on a board resting on their knees. A young man stands watching, right hand on his hip. The photo in Villegas' hands shows almost the exact same image. "I feel like everybody I talk to about [Beautiful Walls], if they have a favorite, nine times out of 10 it's this," she says, adding that Voshell told her that he and Mason would drive around the city taking photos of people to come up with ideas for their murals. She points out how the artists changed the young man's stance a bit in the mural, and exhales heavily. "I would love to find this young guy, to see if he is still around."
With the exhibition "Beautiful Walls for Baltimore" currently on view at School 33, Villegas hopes to reach out to anybody still around that was involved with it and to document that era's creative energy. In addition to new pieces by contemporary artists and historical artifacts from the Beautiful Walls era installed in the galleries, Villegas and filmmaker Khoran Lee have been collecting oral histories from muralists, and she hopes to put together a publication about the program.
It's an effort to find out as much as possible about that time period before the people who remember it are gone. Villegas confesses that she's a bit obsessed with Mason's work, and pulls out a number of photographs of his murals in conversation. He painted a mural at the Duncan Street Miracle Garden in Broadway East, and garden representatives reached out to her office about having a damaged portion of the mural restored. It was only after trying to contact Mason that she found out that he passed away in November 2013. She realized that while we may know so many of the city's murals, we know less about the people who made them.
Mason didn't receive an obituary in The Sun, and he was one of Baltimore's most prolific and indelible muralists. "I stopped counting after about 35 murals," says Deborah Mason, his widow. "He enjoyed it to the point where he actually drove a cab part time so that he would not get overcommitted to a job so that he could take off when he had to paint."
Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Mason moved to Baltimore with his parents and grew up here before going to school at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He participated in Beautiful Walls for about two years, first as an apprentice, then as an artist, before earning an MFA from MICA's Hoffberger School of Painting in 1979. A tenor saxophonist as well as a painter, Mason was interested in music, Egyptology, literature, and the African-American experience, which can be seen in his work around the city. "He was passionate about all of those things because he was a passionate person," Deborah Mason says. "And he studied for his own enjoyment all of those things. So if he was inspired by some reading or some historical event, that would be what would inspire him to paint."
That artist-driven vision runs throughout the Beautiful Walls-era murals, even though Mayor William Donald Schaeffer got the ball rolling as an act of civic boosterism. In 1973 "The Wall of Respect," depicting 15 renowned black Americans, was painted in the 1600 block of North Carey Street by artists hired by the Baltimore Model Cities Agency with equipment donated from the Department of Recreation and Parks. That same year the city's Department of Housing and Community Development received a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to hire 10 artists or artist teams to paint murals in the city, which started in 1974. It was called the Mayor's Mural Painting Project, and in 1975 the NEA declined to repeat the grant.
Beautiful Walls ran 1975-79, and was funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) of 1973, a federal law enacted to provide public service job training. Beautiful Walls hired 10 artists and paired them with 10 apprentices for one year. No previous mural experience was necessary, and low-income and unemployed artists were sought. For one year these artists went around the city, met with community members, and came up with design ideas for murals to present to different neighborhoods. Villegas says the artists were paid around $8,000 a year. That may not sound like much, but as adjusted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index, $8,000 in 1975 has the same buying power of about $35,000 in 2015. That's a one-year salary earning an artist somewhere between a Sondheim Prize's $25,000 and the Baker Artist Award's $50,000. And they had studio space as part of the program.
CETA funding seeded a variety of community-based arts interventions, including murals, in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco. Muralists organized the first National Murals Conference in New York City in 1976, which drew more than 150 artists; the second National Murals Conference was held in Chicago in 1977.
The Jobs Training Partnership Act of 1982 replaced CETA. It also focused on job training for the un- and underemployed but eliminated the public service component, focusing entirely on the private sector. In the introduction to Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissman's "On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City," independent scholar Timothy W. Drescher, who has studied murals since 1972, briefly covers how changing mural funding models affected mural content over time, as the politically charged mural of the 1960s and 1970s was softened into the more positivist/uplifting imagery requested by funders and administrators in the 1980s, '90s, and since.
Baltimore's murals somewhat follow the national trend: a CETA-funded outburst of creativity in the 1970s, sharp drop for most of the 1980s, and picking up again at the tail end of the decade through a combination of federal, corporate, and private donors.
And they've apparently always been a locus for snarky local discourse. An exhibition devoted to the Beautiful Walls for Baltimore project ran from April to June 1978 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It included two murals created in/for the BMA, a panel discussion, and two bus tours. Baltimore Sun critic Lincoln F. Johnson politely reviewed the exhibition in the May 12, 1978, edition of the paper. The Sun's hodgepodge "Gallimaufry" column on May 20, 1978, taunted: "'Beautiful Walls for Baltimore,' as the city's outdoor mural program is called, makes for a colorful and crowd-drawing exhibit at the Museum of Art, but very few persons attended the panel discussion at the museum of this same subject. An inference may be drawn that Baltimoreans believe painted walls should be seen but not heard about. Thus they missed learning of the significance of outdoor murals as a focus of neighborhood pride, community-artist rapport and federal funded creativity. What they didn't miss was hearing anyone so bold as to say the painted walls are good art."
And in the 1982 book "Wall to Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression," art historian Karal Ann Marling argues that to write about murals informed purely by art historical and market-aesthetic standpoints is to discount the thoughts, lives, and experience of the people who see them every day. In conversation with Villegas she relates that she recently had a conversation with a man about 'The Checker Players.' He told her that he saw that mural every day as he rode the bus into the city to go to work. Murals become "part of people's landscapes," Villegas says. "It's imprinted in them. And when they're gone people ask, what happened to that? Who made it?"
Villegas says she would love for the Baltimore Mural Program to have dedicated recurring funding and to be tied to jobs, and the "Beautiful Walls for Baltimore" exhibition is as good an argument as any for what such a funding model can accomplish. But Villegas really hopes the exhibition is a first step at honoring the artists who participated in the program. She hopes to gather enough historical information and make it publicly available so that scholars can study it later. "That's important," she says. "These artists' names aren't really on anything that you can Google, which is really devastating. I'm not necessarily interested in doing the analysis of it. I'm more interested in putting it out there so that people can know that it even happened."
The exhibition "Beautiful Walls for Baltimore" is on display at School 33 until Jan. 30. For more information visit school33.org. For more info on the Baltimore Mural Program, visit promotionandarts.org/arts-council/baltimore-mural-program.